The Here-and-now Guide to Using the Italian Present Continuous
If you want to be able to explain what’s going on in the here-and-now, you’ll need to master the Italian present continuous.
Fortunately, the present continuous isn’t a terribly tricky element of Italian grammar.
In this post, I’ll give you the essential grammar know-how you need to form the Italian present continuous tense and use it in real-world speech or writing.
- What Is the Present Continuous?
- How to Form the Italian Present Continuous
- How to Use the Italian Present Continuous in Context
What Is the Present Continuous?
If you need to say what’s happening right as you speak, you’ll need Italian’s most here-and-now tense—the present continuous.
It corresponds to the English verb ending “-ing” used with the present tense of “to be,” as in, “I am reading.” In Italian you may’ve already seen or heard it with verbs ending in –ando and –endo.
This is a relatively regular tense, so you’ll likely be able to memorize the conjugations correctly right off the bat. And after you’ve read this article, you could study a few flashcards or watch a couple of videos with its use, and chances are you’d be ready to employ it yourself in conversation or writing.
The drawback is that it’s just not used as much as the other Italian tenses; you should only employ the present continuous for things happening right now. More often, when talking about the present, you simply use the regular present tense.
This is why it’s wiser to study the regular and irregular present tense conjugations (especially for stare, which we’ll explain below, and the contracted infinitives) and their uses before you move on to the present continuous. This post will assume you’ve done that, and that you know the Italian subject pronouns (io — I, tu — you, etc. ).
You’ll sometimes hear the present continuous tense also called the present progressive, and the main verb in this form is also controversially called a gerund. Some Italians feel that this isn’t even “really” a tense.
Below, we’ll first look at how the present continuous is formed, and then we’ll take a careful look at how you should use it in-context—as well as those times, especially for English native speakers, when you want to make sure not to use it.
How to Form the Italian Present Continuous
To make the present continuous, you first need the helper verb stare, which in other contexts can mean “to remain” among other definitions, but here will work something like the English helper verb “to be.” Its conjugation is irregular:
io sto — I am
tu stai — you (singular informal) are
lui / lei / Lei sta — he/she/you (formal) are
noi stiamo — we are
voi state — you (plural) are
loro stanno — they are
Once you have the helper verb, you’ll need to tack on your main verb plus its past “gerund” ending. There are thankfully only two endings to know: –ando is added onto the stems of –are verbs and –endo is attached to the stems of all other verbs (that is, –ere verbs and –ire verbs).
- cantare — to sing
cant- + -ando = cantando (singing)
- venire — to come
ven- + -endo = venendo (coming)
To make a full phrase, we combine the helper verb stare conjugated for the subject we want, followed by the main verb. As with other Italian sentences, you don’t necessarily need to state the subject pronoun if it’s obvious from the context.
(io) sto cantando — I’m singing
(loro) stanno venendo — they are coming
In a sentence, it looks like this:
I miei genitori stanno venendo qui dalla Francia. — My parents are coming here (i.e., en route right now) from France.
The irregular verbs to worry about with this tense are simply the contracted infinitives. If you’ve studied your present tense irregular verbs well, you already know the “expanded” stems that’ll come into play here rather than the infinitive stems. Here are a couple of them:
- bere — to drink
In questo momento sta bevendo birra. — At this moment he’s drinking beer.
- fare — to do/make
Non possono uscire perché stanno facendo la pennichella. — They can’t go out because they’re taking their naps.
Other contracted infinitive forms include:
condurre (to drive/to lead) — conducendo (driving/leading)
dire (to say) — dicendo (saying)
trarre (to bring/to pull) — traendo (pulling/bringing)
porre (to put/to lay/to set) — ponendo (putting/laying/setting)
When you know these, you can also make gerunds from their sister verbs in the same way. For example, attrarre (to attract) works just like trarre; it becomes attraendo. Likewise with contrarre (to contract), estrarre (to extract), distrarre (to distract) and sottrarre (to subtract).
If the present continuous is used with personal pronouns, those usually come before the verbal phrase. For example:
Ci stiamo vestendo! — We’re getting dressed!
How to Use the Italian Present Continuous in Context
The key test before you roll out the present continuous is to ask yourself: do I want to emphasize that this action is taking place right now?
For example, I could say:
Che stanno facendo? — What are they doing?
This wouldn’t be a way for me to ask what they generally do to amuse themselves or for a job. I want to know what these people are doing right at the moment. Perhaps they’re making me late, or being interesting right now.
The question could perhaps be interpreted as a bit more insistent or anxious than if I were to ask:
Che fanno? — What are they doing?/What do they do?
Both English translations are possible. This question could mean about the same as Che stanno facendo? above, but depending on the context it could also lead to more general conversations about what they generally do (at this time of day, in life, what they enjoy, what they’ve been up to lately, etc.).
Here are some more examples that contrast the present continuous from the standard present tense.
- Sta’ zitto! Sto ascoltando un podcast! — Be silent! I’m listening to a podcast!
Ascolto molti podcast interessantissimi in italiano. — I listen to many interesting podcasts in Italian.
- Stanno cambiando le carte in tavola. — They’re changing the rules as they go (the rules to whatever they’re currently doing).
Ogni volta che cominciamo ad abituarci, cambiano le carte in tavola. — Once we’ve started to get used to it, they change the rules.
- I giocolieri stanno facendo dei numeri nel parco. — The jugglers are doing tricks in the park (right now; let’s go see them!).
Le domeniche i giocolieri fanno i numeri nel parco. — The jugglers do tricks in the park on Sundays.
- Micol e io stiamo provando i passi dell’ultima lezione di ballo. — Micol and I are practicing the steps from the last dance class (i.e., right now we’re in the dance studio).
Micol e io proviamo i nuovi passi di ballo una volta a settimana. — Micol and I practice the new steps once per week.
It’s important to note that you don’t use the present progressive to talk about the immediate future, as you would in English with a sentence like, “tomorrow I’m going to the store.” Talking about the future requires other tenses in Italian (often, the future indicative) and is a topic for another day.
Ready to roll out the present continuous on your own? This is a tense that can get easily overlooked in language exchanges or Italian conversation classes, because students and teachers tend towards conversations about general topics, how they see the world and what they think of the past and future—areas that by their natures don’t trigger the present continuous.
It’s therefore useful to practice this tense by role-playing situations and talking about what people are doing right at the moment.
If that feels too ridiculous, try looking at pictures (Italian newspapers or Google Image searches can give you endless prompts) and reporting on the situations as if they were happening right in front of you. You can also practice this tense by listening to how native speakers use it in action with a program like FluentU, which teaches the language through authentic Italian videos with interactive subtitles and adaptive quizzes.
Ask yourself: Che stanno facendo? (What are they doing?)
Mose Hayward is on the road, so if at this very moment he’s not writing his next post, chances are he’s packing his bag for the next town, dancing or swimming in the Mediterranean.